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What Size Air Compressor for Car Detailing? Best Compressors for Cleaning Cars

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The right air compressor can take your car detailing to the next level, whether you’re doing it as a mobile business or you just like to keep your cars clean at home, air compressors can offer great versatility.

For cleaning your interiors, an air compressor can air or replace a vacuum, and for the exterior, it can replace a pressure washer. Of course, the pressure coming from an air compressor is not nearly as great as a pressure washer, but they still offer a great result regardless.

The key decision to make is picking the right air compressor for your car detailing, and so, this article will provide you with all the relevant considerations you must factor in, along with providing examples of suitable compressors!

Table of Contents

Important Considerations for Selecting an Air Compressor for Car Detailing

Before you select any air compressor for any project, there are several factors you must consider to help ensure you get the most suitable compressor for your work. When selecting an air compressor for car detailing, you should pay close attention to the following:

  • Vehicle size
  • CFM rating
  • PSI capabilities
  • Tank size
  • Duty cycle
  • Power cord length
  • Additional attachments

Each is important in its own way, with some being more important than others. Let’s now take a look at each of these considerations in more detail!

Vehicle Size

Are you cleaning a small A-to-B car or do you intend to clean a much bigger family car? Each will have different requirements when it comes to cleaning their interior and exterior using an air compressor.

The air compressor you need will typically depend on the size of the vehicle. It’s generally advised that the bigger the car is, the bigger the compressor will need to be to offer more power, a larger tank size, and a longer cycle time.

However, most air compressors should suffice for all vehicles, you will just need to turn your attention to ensuring you can get around the whole vehicle depending on its size.

CFM Rating of Air Compressor

In general, car detailing should use an air compressor that can produce at least 5 CFM (cubic feet per minute). CFM is a measurement of the volume of air that is moved by an air compressor, if you wish to learn more, please visit our guide here!

Sometimes, you may be able to get away with less than 5 CFM, depending on the tools you’re using with the air compressor to conduct the detailing. In other cases, you may want to have an air compressor that can produce up to and over 10 CFM to be able to comfortably use all necessary tools to clean your car.

You’re probably wondering, why have I recommended at least 5 CFM? Well, I base this on one of the most commonly used tools available for car detailing, the Tornador car cleaning gun.

Tornador recommends that for optimal performance of this tool, you will need a compressor that produces 5 CFM @ at least 85 PSI. Of course, you may use a different tool that requires less CFM, or a tool that requires more CFM, and so, you should base the selection of your air compressor around the CFM requirements of your intended tools!

PSI Capabilities of Air Compressor

You will need an air compressor that is capable of providing the correct amount of pressure to power your car detailing tools. Most air compressor tools state their minimum and maximum working pressures, along with their optimum pressure.

For example, the Tornador car cleaning gun above states that it works best at 85 PSI (optimum pressure), but can be used anywhere within 60-110 PSI, as long as you do not go outside of this bracket you will be fine.

Most air compressors can comfortably provide air pressure within 60-110 PSI, so you won’t have any issues finding a suitable air compressor with the desired PSI capabilities.

Another thing to consider is that if you wish to use your air compressor as a pressure washer, then the greater the pressure the better. Pressure washers themselves offer about 1300 PSI, while most air compressors are in the low 100’s region.

If you’re prioritizing pressure washing with an air compressor, but still wish for it to be portable, look for one with a maximum operating pressure of around 150 PSI.

Tank Size of Air Compressor

The tank size of your air compressor for cleaning cars will dictate how much-pressurized air you have available to operate your car detailing tools. In terms of the tank, the bigger the better! The more volume you have the more air you will have available at any given time and the less time you will have to wait for the compressor to recycle.

For small cars, a small portable air compressor with a tank size of 6-10 gallons should suffice. If you wish to clean bigger vehicles and you don’t want to be disrupted, you may need a tank size of around 30-50 gallons. The decision on tank size really depends on the size of your vehicle and how continuously you intend to clean the car in one sweep!

It’s quite normal for car detailers to take breaks in between sections of the car, so, a smaller midrange air compressor may be just fine, especially when portability is desired.

If air compressor portability is not so much of a requirement, and you have a long enough hose, you could have a stationary air compressor with a 60-100 gallon tank, which may even enable you to complete the whole detailing project in one sweep.

Duty Cycle of Air Compressor

The duty cycle of an air compressor is typically represented by a percentage, which determines how much downtime a compressor needs during its cycling. For instance, a 50% duty cycle, which is very common by the way, represents the need for the compressor to rest for 50% of its cycle time to avoid overheating and premature wear. If the cycle time is an hour, the compressor can work for 30 minutes and must idle for the other 30 minutes.

For more information on the duty cycle of an air compressor, visit our guide here. The duty cycle is important to be aware of in the case that you desire continuous airflow or are happy with intermittent use. Typically, when car detailing, a normal duty cycle of 50% and intermittent use should suffice for getting around the vehicle and cleaning different segments.

Given that you will need to change tools to do the interior and exterior, the compressor will have time to catch up with the work demand.

Hose & Power Cord Length Attached to Compressor

As I’ve already touched on, air compressor portability can be a very important factor for car detailing. If your air compressor is portable and you can get it outdoors comfortably around your car, then you will need a long enough power cord. The only problem here though is that using an extension cable can dilute the power, depending on the length of it. And so, the compressor may not operate at its optimum.

If the compressor you choose is stationary and not portable, or you don’t wish to use an extension cord, then you will need a suitable length of hose to be able to get the compressed air from your compressor around and inside your car to clean it.

Again, this is not an ideal situation as the longer your hose length becomes, the greater the pressure drop across it, and so, you will need to account for any potential pressure drop to ensure your tools are receiving the right amount of pressure.

Visit our What Size Extension Cord For An Air Compressor guide for more information!

Additional Attachments

If you don’t have the air tools for car detailing already, you should be considering sourcing these tools before the compressor, or at least considering them, and their CFM requirements. To car detailing air tools, you will typically need to include a blowout tool, a blowgun, and an air polisher. Whether you require them all is completely up to you, here I will provide a bit more information on each.

Blowout Tool

A blowout tool is a cleaning air gun that is great for use on the interior of the car, removing debris from pockets, cup holders, under seats, and other hard-to-reach places. Some of these tools can aid with drying wet engines after they have been power washed too. Here’s an example of a Tornado blowout tool suitable for car detailing!

Blow Gun

Blowguns are ideal for heavy-duty and professional use to blow dust, water, debris, and other particles out of the engine bay or other hard-to-reach areas. They tend to be available with multiple pressure settings. Here’s an example of a JASTIND blow gun suitable for car detailing!

Air Polisher

Air polishers are ideal for cleaning the exterior of the car, such as headlights. Some of these tools may require greater CFM and PSI output than small compressors. Here’s an example of a DeWalt polisher suitable for car detailing!

Examples of Suitable Air Compressors for Car Detailing

I will now provide you with some examples of air compressors that are readily available on Amazon which I believe are suitable for car detailing! I’ve split the examples into portable air compressors for mobile car detailing, and larger static units for workshops.

Portable Air Compressors for Car Detailing

What is the best air compressor for mobile detailing? Well, it generally depends on your tools requirements. I have picked out 3 very good examples and justified their selection with the specifications that you should be looking out for during your search.

The first one is this Makita MAC5200 3.0HP portable air compressor suitable for car detailing.

  • HP: 3.0
  • CFM: 6.5 @ 90 PSI
  • Max. Pressure: 140 PSI
  • Tank Size: 5.2 Gallons
  • Weight: 75 lbs

This air compressor is capable of producing 6.5 CFM @ 90 PSI, which is enough to power your car detailing air tools and has wheels, and a folding handle with a low profile design for easy transportation and storage when not in use.

The only downfall of this wonderful compressor is its 5.2-gallon tank. This may not offer enough air storage for you to complete your car detailing work, and so, you may have to accept intermittent use and allow your compressor to keep up with the air demand.

If you prefer larger storage of air, but still a portable compressor, this Industrial Air IL1682066.MN 20-gallon air compressor is a great option for car detailing.

  • HP: 1.6
  • CFM: 5.3 @ 90 PSI
  • Max. Pressure: 135 PSI
  • Tank Size: 20 Gallons
  • Weight: 159 lbs

This portable air compressor for car detailing offers the necessary amount of CFM to power your tools, along with a 20-gallon air receiver tank to enable you to work more continuously without having to stop-start to allow the compressor to refill the tank.

Although this compressor is portable, the weight is significantly more than the Makita air compressor due to its increased tank size.

Now, you may have noticed that neither of these compressors is capable of providing pressures around the 150 PSI mark that I mentioned earlier is a good amount to use your air compressor as a pressure washer.

To satisfy that requirement, you would need to purchase a compressor similar to this Industrial Air ILA188354 30-gallon air compressor.

  • HP: 1.9
  • CFM: 5.7 @ 90 PSI
  • Max. Pressure: 155 PSI
  • Tank Size: 30 Gallons
  • Weight: 190 lbs

This Industrial Air compressor again is heavier than the previous two examples, but its high maximum pressure, sufficient CFM rating, and tank size make it the best air compressor for mobile auto detailing.

Stationary Air Compressors for Car Detailing

It may be that you prefer to have an air compressor for not only car detailing but powering all sorts of pneumatic tools. And so, here is an example of one that would be suitable, based on the considerations I provided earlier in the article.

This NorthStar air compressor is an example of a far larger storage compressor with a 60-gallon tank. The problem with this type of compressor is that it’s stationary, and though it offers a huge amount of air storage to be able to complete your car detailing, the accessibility to the whole vehicle may become an issue, and so, lengthy hoses would be required.

  • HP: 3.7
  • CFM: 11.5 @ 90 PSI
  • Max. Pressure: 135 PSI
  • Tank Size: 60 Gallons
  • Weight: 228 lbs

This compressor offers significantly more CFM than the portable compressors presented in this article, and so will be capable of powering multiple tools at once. Though it has great storage of air, the compressor is only able to operate at a maximum pressure of 135 PSI, which would affect any pressure washing operations.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What size air compressor do I need for detailing?

In short, a portable air compressor that can provide 5 CFM will suffice for detailing projects. The size of the air receiver tank is completely up to you. The greater the size, the greater the amount of air you will have available to clean your car.

Can you use an air compressor to detail a car?

Yes, air compressors can be used to detail cars. By attaching air tools like blowout tools, blowguns, or air polishers you will be able to carry out all necessary tasks to clean your car.

Do you need air compressor for detailing?

You don’t necessarily NEED an air compressor for detailing no, but the use of compressed air can be extremely useful for detailing interiors, blowing out contaminants from hard-to-reach sections of the car. They can also be particularly useful on the exterior of the car to blow out nooks and crannies after a wash.

What size air compressor do I need for a Tornador?

Tornador tools used for car detailing will typically require around 5 CFM @ 85 PSI to be able to operate sufficiently. Therefore, any compressor that is capable of providing more than 5 CFM @ 90 PSI should be good enough for your Tornador tool.

Additional CFM reading:

What size air compressor:

If you have any questions regarding what compressor you need for car detailing, please leave a comment below, with a photo if applicable, so that someone can help you!

By Aidan Weeks

A passionate Mechanical Engineer with endless enthusiasm for fluid power - building off the back of over 18 years of high quality contribution and discussion stimulated by Bill Wade here at About Air Compressors. With both practical and theoretical experience in pneumatics and hydraulics, I'm putting my knowledge to work - and working my grey-matter through my research, assistance and publishing work here at About Air Compressors. Feel free to reach out any time! P.S. A HUGE shout out to Doug who really offers such great value to all visitors to About Air Compressors - once again, feeling like I'm standing on the shoulders of GIANTS by getting to work alongside such a great community

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